Public Defender, Traci Smith

 

Public Defender Services

 

Role, Functions, and Services of the Minnehaha County Public Defender

The role of he Public Defender was pioneered after the landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, wherein a modest man by the name of Clarence Gideon sat in his Florida prison cell and drafted a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court indicating that he was not guilty, and that equal justice under the law meant that he should have been able to have a lawyer at his side.  He had asked for a lawyer, but was told by the Judge that if he wanted a lawyer, he would need to hire one on his own.  Unfortunately for him, he did not have the money to hire a lawyer.  Justice Black eventually delivered the majority opinion stating that a lawyer “is a necessity, not a luxury.”

 

Since then, Public Defender Offices have been established throughout the United States.  The Public Defender concept of providing legal representation reflects the societal concern that all individuals, regardless of income, should receive proper counsel to ensure their rights under the law are protected.  Proper representation is essential to maintain the balance in the adversarial process of determining truth of accusations, and has proven itself to be cost effective to taxpayers.  Proper representation is necessary to maintain a balance between the prosecution, the defense, and the courts, and only in this way can citizens be assured that the law is equally and effectively applied to all persons.

 

The Minnehaha Public Defender is a law office established in 1981, and officially opened in January of 1982.  The office is funded by the county of Minnehaha, and employs twenty-one lawyers, four paralegals, and five legal office assistants.   The office also utilizes the services of third year law students from the University of South Dakota School of Law participating in the Law Student Defender Program.

 

The Minnehaha County Public Defender’s office represents clients charged with any crime where a person is facing the possibility of incarceration.  This may include everything from a no insurance ticket to first degree murder.   In addition the office also handles juveniles charged with delinquency, parents who have had their children removed from their homes for allegations of abuse or neglect, and people who are the subjects of attempted involuntary commitments for mental illness or chemical abuse.

 

Deputy Public Defenders are all members of the South Dakota State Bar, and are governed by the same rules and ethical obligations which pertain to privately retained attorneys.  They are all employed by the Public Defender’s Office as full time employees, and by law they are not permitted to maintain private legal practices in addition to their employment with the county.  Their experience levels range from having been newly admitted to practice law up to over 30 years of specialty in criminal practice.  Cases are assigned to deputies in accordance with their experience.  Thus, complex and serious cases are assigned only to those deputies with considerable experience.  Homicide cases are assigned only to senior level attorneys. 

 

Why do we do what we do? 

The criminal justice system succeeds or fails based on whether all who are touched by it are treated equally.  If a person with resources is falsely accused of a crime, he or she can hire the best lawyer they can find.  If a person without resources is falsely accused, they are entrusted to us.

 

Each of us is keenly aware that only if our effort and ability is equal to those with resources does the system succeed.  To that end, we strive to earn the trust of those whose liberty is entrusted to us.

Are Public Defenders real lawyers?

Absolutely!  All Minnehaha County public defenders are full-fledged attorneys, and licensed by the South Dakota State Bar.  In order to become a Deputy Public Defender, an individual must have a minimum of a four year degree from an accredited university, followed up by three years of law school to attain their Juris-Doctor degree.  Each lawyer must then apply to the South Dakota State Bar, which includes an extensive background check and undergo a rigorous examination, before receiving the certification necessary to represent clients within the state.  Public defenders are screened and hired only if they have the intellectual ability, legal knowledge, and the commitment to practice criminal defense law. 

 

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